It is has been available in other countries for quite some time.

But for reasons known only to Apple, its HomePod mini smart speaker had not been officially for sale in Ireland, until this week (although some people had managed to find ways to get their hands on one).

The delay in putting it on sale here means it is entering a market already dominated by Amazon's Echo products and the similar Nest offerings from Google.

But there are features of the HomePod mini that make it attractive as an option for smart speaker purchasers.

DESIGN

The HomePod mini is spherical in shape with a flat top and bottom and is slightly larger in size than a tennis ball.

It is wrapped in a fabric mesh and comes in two colours – white and space grey.

The cable is also covered in fabric, and the USB-C plug comes with a mains adapter in the box.

The design is minimalist in nature, meaning the device will blend in well on most shelves.

Control is via voice in the first instance and with four in-built microphones it is pretty good at picking up your utterings in a range of circumstances.

The device can also be set to recognise individual voices, which enables each person to access personalised playlists, recommendations etc when it comes to music.

There are also limited touch controls on top for playing and pausing, skipping tracks, activating the digital voice assistant Siri and adjusting volume.

While an LED light ring changes colour depending on what Siri is up to.

SET-UP

Setting up the HomePod mini is pretty straightforward.

You will however need an Apple device to do it.

Once plugged in, you bring your iPhone or iPad close to the HomePod until the two recognise each other.

You simply then follow the instructions to finish setting it up and connecting it to Wifi and you are ready to go.

I didn’t have any issue with the basic set-up, although when it came to adding some existing smart home devices, the fact I was using a mesh Wifi system did make things tricky.

But more on that later.

Software updates can be set to download and install automatically, which is helpful.

AUDIO

While most smart speakers promise lots of different features, in reality it is audio that the bulk of users will use the most.

The HomePod mini packs a decent punch in this regard, despite its compact size.

Driven by the Apple designed S5 chip, the speaker has a full range driver that delivers both strong bass and sharp upper frequencies, with minimal distortion at high volumes.

The passive radiators and acoustic waveguide work well to direct the sound out of the bottom of the device.

This delivers a pretty good 360-degree listening experience, no matter where you place the speaker.

Coupled with this hardware, the chip constantly profiles the music, adjusting the response of the device based on the characteristics of the audio.

It all sounds very technical but the result is a solid sound experience.

With relative ease it is also possible to create a stereo pair with another HomePod mini and to play the same audio simultaneously across multiple devices either in the same room or different rooms.

In fact, any device that has Apple AirPlay 2 functionality built in can be controlled from the HomePod mini and equally an iPhone with AirPlay 2 also provides another means of controlling the smart speaker.

If you have Apple TV, the HomePod mini can be connected to act as a speaker.

One other handy feature are the proximity controls, that enable you to essentially transfer whatever it is that you are listening to over from any iPhone with the ultra-wideband U1 chip inside it to the speaker by bringing them close together.

Its also possible to see what’s playing at any given time by bringing an iPhone and the HomePod close together.

SMART HOME FUNCTIONALITY

The other important main feature of any smart speaker is the ability to control smart home devices.

And in this regard, the HomePod mini works fairly well.

Before I get into what it can do, be aware that if you use a mesh Wifi system in your home, you may come up against some additional challenges, as all the smart devices need to be connected to the same network as the HomePod mini.

If that isn’t an issue or you find a way to overcome it though, the HomePod mini becomes a useful hub for controlling and monitoring lights, smart plugs, cameras, doorbells and more.

It is all done through Apple’s Homekit smart home system, and integrating all the major brands of smart devices, like those made by Hive, Philips Hue, Eve, Nanoleaf, Belkin etc, is easy enough.

Set up is made very simple provided you have an iPhone or iPad – you just scan the label on the new accessory, give it a name and a room and that will add it to your home on the Home app, enabling you to control it from HomePod mini.

As with other smart hubs, you can also set up "scenes" where a particular voice instruction triggers a series of actions on smart home devices.

Another feature you’ll find on other smart home systems, like Amazon’s and Google’s, is the ability to send a message to all the compatible devices added to the system.

Apple calls its version Intercom and through it quick messages can be sent to other HomePod minis in the house or to iPads, iPhones, Apple Watches, CarPlay systems and AirPods.

OTHER FEATURES

There are a host of other things that the HomePod mini can do – some obvious, others not; a few that are innovative, many that replicate similar features on other devices.

Siri can be used for accessing shortcuts on your phone and it is even possible to order a web search on the HomePod, the results of which get delivered to your iPhone.

As you might expect you can create notes, make calendar entries, use HomePod to find your other Apple devices and to set alarms and reminders.

It is also possible to make and receive phone calls and send messages from the smart speaker.

PRIVACY

Many people are understandably and legitimately wary about having a smart speaker in their home.

Apple goes to great lengths to underscore the privacy bona fides of HomePod mini.

It says personal requests are processed on the device and aren't sent elsewhere.

HomePod only ever listens for the wake words, Hey Siri, and recordings aren't continuously sent to a server and when they are sent for processing they aren't stored.

Requests are tied to a random identifier, not your Apple ID and this identifier is not linked to your Apple ID, email address, or other data Apple may have from your use of other Apple services, the company states.

Smart home data is also encrypted as it goes back and forth between devices.

CONCLUSION

The HomePod mini looks good, sounds good and offers a plethora of functions and features, some unique to Apple.

But that will be part of the problem for many potential users - the fact that its hard to get the most from HomePod mini unless you are a little or a lot attached to the Apple ecosystem.

Cost is also a drawback too, with the device costing €99 - three times more than the equivalent Amazon Echo Dot and Google Nest mini.

Ultimately, if you are an Apple fan, it is probably a no-brainer.

But if Android is your thing or you like the way Amazon products work, then you might get a better outcome by shopping around.